Sony A9 II Review | Staying One Generation Ahead Of The Competition!
While other camera companies have not yet delivered a true flagship action sports camera in the full-frame mirrorless arena, Sony has moved on to the second generation of its own flagship action camera, the Sony A9 II.
Building on the Sony A9, which came out just two an a half years before its mk2 version, (April 2017) this new A9-series camera is similar in many ways, (roughly the same sensor) and yet different in a few key areas (ergonomics, AF technology) that do make quite a difference.
The A9 II currently retails for ~$4,500, whereas you can get the original A9 for ~$4000 new, (when it’s not on sale for a couple/few hundred dollars less!) or ~$3,000 used in “mint’ condition.
So, everybody will want to know: is the Sony A9 II worth the upgrade for current A9 owners? Is it worth buying instead of the A9, for new buyers? Is it time to switch from a DSLR?
In this review, we’ll consider the types of photography you might be doing, and where you might be coming from in terms of your current camera, plus your budget for bodies and lenses.; from this, we should be able to help all types of photographers draw the right conclusion, for them!
Sony A9 II | Specifications
- SENSOR: 24-megapixel, BSI stacked CMOS sensor, BIONZ X processor
- LENS MOUNT: Sony E-mount (FE full-frame)
- STILL IMAGES: 24 megapixels (6000×4000)
- VIDEO RESOLUTION: 4K/30p, 1080/60p, 8-bit
- ISO: 100-51200 (Extended: 50-204800)
- AUTOFOCUS: Hybrid AF, 693 phase-detect & 425 contrast-detect points
- SHOOTING SPEED: 10 FPS mechanical shutter, 20 FPS electronic shutter
- SHUTTER SPEEDS: 1/8000 sec to 30 sec mechanical, up to 1/32000 sec electronic
- VIEWFINDER: 3.68M-dot OLED electronic viewfinder, (EVF) 100% coverage, 0.78x mag.
- LCD: 3-inch, 1.44M-dot LCD touchscreen
- CONNECTIVITY: 3.5mm mic, 3.5mm headphone, HDMI D (micro), USB-C, USB-Micro (Sony remote), PC flash sync port
- STORAGE: Dual SD/SDHC/SDXC UHS-II
- BATTERY: NP-FZ100, 2280 mAh, 500-shot CIPA rating (NOTE: we get 1,500-2,000 shots at weddings!)
- BODY CONSTRUCTION: All-metal, fully weather-sealed
- SIZE: 5.07×3.8×3.05 in. (128.9×96.4×77.5 mm)
- WEIGHT: 1.49 lb (678 g)
- PRICE: $4,499 (B&H)
Sony A9 II Review | Who Should Buy It?
At $4.5K, it’s the most expensive mirrorless camera on the market, besides medium format digital. (Actually, you could get a Fuji GFX 50R for the exact same price!) So, it’s clearly not for everybody. However, the price alone does not mean that it’s perfect for all types of serious professional or demanding conditions, either! As with all high-speed and high-performance flagship cameras, its target is definitely action sports & wildlife photographers.
Let’s explore a few different types of photography that can potentially also have active shooting conditions, as well, just for comparison.
A serious wedding photographer might not need 10-20 frames per second, however, they sure do love reliable autofocus in extremely dim lighting! (They also love nailing focus with extremely shallow depth, for maximum bokeh!)
Being able to track a bride as she walks up the aisle of a dimly lit church, or being able to track a bride and groom in the middle of a dance floor, are both realms where even the professional DSLRs can sometimes struggle. Also, just ask any DSLR owner how many times they’ve had to calibrate their favorite f/1.4 or f/1.8 prime because it was consistently front-focusing or back-focusing, and they’ll probably cringe in disgust…
Well, as we already mentioned in our article about how good the A9 is for wedding photography in particular, the A9 II delivers the goods in terms of low-light focusing. If you have the money for the A9 II, you won’t be disappointed.
However, it was the A9 itself that was the huge leap forward in overall low-light focusing technology, so if you already own an A9, or are investing in your first mirrorless wedding photography camera on a slightly smaller budget, you won’t be disappointed with an A9, either. It really is that good…
Honestly, though? Unless the original A9 is on sale at the time, it’s only a $500 difference. Save up a little more, and you’ll be rewarded with a much more polished camera that will make a good workhorse, long-term investment.
Could you photograph weddings with the Sony A7 III instead? Absolutely; it also has great image quality, dual card slots, and great battery life. The autofocus isn’t nearly as impressive as the 9-series, however, it’s nothing to scoff at and unless you’re constantly shooting in truly abysmal conditions, your AF won’t struggle too much.
Portrait photographers don’t find themselves shooting extreme action, but they also don’t find themselves in terrible light as often as wedding photographers, either. With this in mind, an A7 III is a much more sensible first investment, or even a 2nd camera or an upgrade. Unless you’re doing high-dollar portrait work right away, the $2,000 investment is a much better use of your money. Heck, for the price of the A9 II, you could buy an A7 III and a GM zoom or a couple of great primes.
On the other hand, portrait photographers are more likely to shoot fewer photos overall and make bigger prints too. Therefore, if you do have more money to spend, then instead of an A7 III, an A7R III or A7R IV really make “flagship” portrait photography cameras. Also, the autofocus on the A7R IV is a good leap forward in terms of autofocus performance, for those who might shoot in more active conditions.
Traditional Sports Photographers
Compared to portrait and wedding photography where the mirrorless Sonys really shine, serious sports photography has been the realm where many pros are still using flagship DSLRs, and rightly so. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” definitely applies to photographing sports with a Canon 1DX III or Nikon D6.
Having sais that, mirrorless in general, and the A9 II especially, do have quite a few things to offer.
The real question is, what type of action sports do you photograph? Is it extremely erratic and high-speed, in which case the refresh rate of an electronic viewfinder might become a frustration or even a deal-breaker? Maybe you should stick with your flagship DSLR. However, you should be at least curious, and if you rent an A9II sometime, you might be surprised by what the A9 II has to offer in terms of subject tracking.
Extreme Sports Photographers
Extreme sports (that is, anything from rock climbing to mountain biking or skiing/snowboarding) often have conditions that are very different from team sports, racing, etc. Ultra-wide, in-your-face action moments, and telephoto shots with, well, some pretty bizarre, complex environments! In other words, there always seems to be something about the scene that is making it pretty challenging to focus on subjects.
The Sony A9 II absolutely does have benefits that make it more attractive than a traditional DSLR. One of the biggest things are the hybrid focus points, which are spread out all over the entire viewfinder so that when erratic subjects are being tracked around the image frame, you never have to worry about AF losing them.
Also, you never have to worry about the off-center AF points being significantly less reliable than the central AF points, which is often true with many DSLRs.
(Only at the very left and right edges of the A9 II frame will you find less reliable AF points, but you’re highly unlikely to ever place an active subject in those zones anyways.)
Plus, lenses like the new Sony FE 12-24mm f/2.8 GM exist, which offer unprecedented shooting capabilities in terms of focal length, aperture, and autofocus performance. In other words, if you need to track subjects that do all sorts of crazy things, then as long as you can keep them in view, the A9 II AF can keep them in perfect focus.
Here’s an area where subjects move at VERY high speeds, and where tracking them with an electronic viewfinder takes a lot of practice and still isn’t as easy as with an optical viewfinder. Simply put, when you’re trying to follow a fighter jet that is doing 300 MPH, (and you want to zoom all the way in to fill the frame with your subject using a lens like the Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G) …you may find the A9 II’s zero-blackout, 20 FPS shooting to be very impressive, but the refresh rate of the EVF itself (120 FPS when using the mechanical shutter, or 60 FPS when using the electronic shutter) might still result in the subject flying out of your viewfinder. No pun intended.
With some experience and practice, though, it’s still a more-than-capable tool for aviation photography, of course, and once you get the hang of it, the benefits of Sony’s Real-Time Tracking AF are once again a real treat.
Wildlife photographers might be more likely than “traditional” action sports photographers to want to make huge prints with their best images. And while 24 megapixels is very respectable up to decently large print sizes, it’s still nothing compared to, say, 42-61 megapixels.
Therefore, wildlife photographers really have to ask themselves what their demands are. Do you ever make absolutely huge prints? If not, then 24 megapixels is probably more than enough. But, if you do a lot of print/gallery work, you might prefer the Sony A7R IV instead, which isn’t as blazing fast as the A9 II, but is still a big enough leap forward in terms of autofocus, FPS, and buffer size that it’s a very respectable wildlife camera.
Oh, and when all else fails, you can throw the A7R IV into Super-35 (APS-C) crop mode, and still get 26-megapixel stills out of it! For anyone coming from an original A9, or any ~24-megapixel camera, it’s like having a built-in teleconverter. (Oh, and it doubles your buffer size, too!)
Shooting landscapes with a Sony A9 II feels like using a katana to slice cheese. (I’m just guessing, I don’t own a ninja sword!) The bottom line is this: Your money would be FAR better spent on a Sony A7R III or A7R IV, because not only will you have nearly (or more than) double the megapixels, you’ll also have more than enough money left over for an awesome landscape photography lens!
Having said that, let’s say you’re mostly a wildlife photographer, but you also shoot landscapes on the side. Do you need to buy a whole new camera, just because 24 megapixels is “not enough”? Absolutely not! Decently large prints are possible for the serious hobbyist, and for any scenes that deserve oodles of megapixels, panoramic stitching is easier than ever these days. The above image is, in fact, a 65-megapixel panorama, shot hand-held and merged to a perfect raw (DNG) panorama in Lightroom Classic.
Nightscape & Astrophotographers
For the price of the A9 II, you could buy an A7 III, a Sony 20mm f/1.8 G, and the Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DN Art. I don’t think we need to say any more than that. Just like traditional landscapes, if you’re using a tripod and not shooting at 10-20 FPS, any camera in the A7-series is a far better choice for you.
Sony A9 II Review | Pros & Cons
Like the original A9, the mk2 Sony has a lot going for it, and not much to be critical of. It’s a high-performance beast, without being enormous and heavy like the high-performance beasts of the DSLR world. It’s got the most advanced, customizable ergonomics and interface of any camera we’ve used before, which has an intimidating initial learning curve but is very rewarding for any serious photographer who wants a wide range of capability from their camera.
Without a doubt, image quality is extremely important for a camera that costs this much. Also unlike cameras that are used for more casual photography, a camera like the A9 mk2 needs to perform extremely well at all ISO’s, not just low ISOs or just high ISOs. Especially for a camera with “only” 24 megapixels, it needs to have no Achilles heels whatsoever, because the image files need to be good enough to handle extremely difficult lighting conditions, as well as the occasional exposure error.
When it comes to dynamic range, the A9 II sensor does not disappoint. Both shadow and highlight recovery are very impressive, and the roll-off from “recovered” shadows/highlights to totally mushy shadows, or totally clipped highlights is very smooth, without any horrible banding or posterization.
In other words, the raw image files are very workable, or malleable. (By the way, if you shoot JPG, you can still gain the benefits of the sensor’s incredible dynamic range by turning the DRO, or Dynamic Range Optimizer, all the way up, and setting the Creative Style to something like Neutral for muted colors and contrast, or Landscape for saturated colors and punchier contrast.)
Speaking of highly workable files, here’s what an ISO 12800 image looks like, after being 1-stop underexposed and then recovered in post-production. That’s truly impressive; image detail is still very sharp, and noise levels are not too distracting on lighter tones, and manageable in the shadows.
Soft, subtle colors and vibrant punchy colors from the A9 II always look beautiful and, well, real. Of course, color science is highly subjective, and also highly dependent on your raw conversion, but all in all, I find the A9 II’s colors to be wonderful.
Moving on from image quality, autofocus performance is where the real do-or-die moment comes. How good is the autofocus?
In short, yes, it was so good that I found myself using Real-Time Tracking AF for all kinds of crazy things, not just traditional sports. It was almost a game, to see what types of erratic, back-and-forth motion I could get the AF system to reliably work with. The types of subjects I would have really struggled with on a Nikon D8x0 series or a Canon 5D-series…
There is no doubt that the sheer speed of the AF system is impressive, and that the Real-Time Tracking is unprecedented. However, does it truly de-throne the flagship DSLRs? Honestly, I think it’s a close call. But, personally, based on autofocus reliability alone I would rather go with the mirrorless flagship because I value the AF point spread, and the absence of needing AF micro-adjustments every couple months is worth its weight in gold.
Features & Customizations
Say what you will about slight differences in sheer performance tests such as image quality or autofocus, there is one thing that is more cut-and-dry: this camera is complex, but in a good way for serious professionals. Picking up a Sony A9 II is like climbing into the cockpit of a fighter jet, or maybe a 747 jumbo jet.
That is to say, you’re going to be spending many hours familiarizing yourself with the camera, and customizing the physical buttons/Fn menu/MyMenu, and it is going to require a lot of committing things to muscle memory, but once you get past that, your capabilities feel greater than ever before.
Design & Durability
Each generation of Sony cameras has seen a noticeable improvement in their overall durability, and this is no exception. Although the A9 was already extensively weather-sealed, the A9 II is apparently even more high-end in terms of enduring the harshest of abuse.
Aside from that, the ergonomics are a massive improvement from the A9. Upon shooting with the A9 II for just one month, the previous generation already feels like it’s much older than it really is. Every little detail of the changed grip and button layout is a much-welcomed improvement. Finally, the camera just feels right in-hand.
Sony A9 II Review | Cons
For such a near-perfect camera, we’re going to have to dig a little to find stuff to complain about. Spoiler alert: it’s more of the same complaints that we’ve had for other Sonys in the past, such as the A7R IV which we reviewed here.
Menus Still Far More Expansive & Disorganized Than Nikon & Canon
Because the latest Sony bodies are so highly customizable, they have no choice but to create menu options for literally EVERYTHING. To a Canon or Nikon shooter, it seems silly to have to wade through menu options like shooting mode (PSAM) or metering, because those functions have had dedicated physical buttons for literally decades.
I invented a new game, it’s called “Is that a jumbo jet, or just 9 pages of Sony menus?”
Other camera settings that do have a physical button by default, like White Balance and ISO and AF point selection, are also at the mercy of Sony’s extensive customization potential, so they have to get their own dedicated menu item, too.
Lastly, mirrorless cameras in general have more complex features in general, as well as many totally new ones, which clutters up the menu interface even more.
In other words, not only is operating and customizing the A9 II like wielding a two-edged sword but also, if you’re unfamiliar or inexperienced with such a powerful tool, well, you’re going to cut yourself a lot!
Is the learning curve worth it, though? Yes, absolutely. In fact, I now prefer Sony’s customization because of its vast potential; it truly is better than Canon or Nikon or any other brand I’ve tried. However, I still would like to see a completely re-designed, better-organized menu. I know it’s a difficult task, but it should be possible. (Heck, Sony, just CALL ME, I could do it in a week!)
The A9 Is Still An Incredible Value
The other elephant in the room is, the A9 is still one of the best mirrorless cameras around for action photography. If you already own one, you’re probably not dissatisfied enough to just cough up $4500 for an updated version after only 1-2 years. Yes, the A9 has held great resale value, and you could probably upgrade without pouring in more than $2,000 or so. But still, the whole point of you spending $4500 on the original A9 in the first place, (what it MSRP’d for in 2017) …was to own a camera that could last you 5-10 years.
So, if you already own an A9, you might as well stick with it, and enjoy the flagship you already invested in. However, as we mentioned earlier, if you’re new to the market, it’s only an extra $500 to get the more future-proof generation, the better long-term investment at this point.
Value Being Eroded By New Competition? Not Yet, But Soon…
Make no mistake, flagship action sports cameras used to sell for about $6,500 or even $8,000. Having such a camera as the A9 II for “just” $4,500 has been unprecedented ever since the original A9 MSRP’d for the same price.
However, in the last couple of years, we have also started to see the speed and precision of other cameras climbing higher and higher. Fuji, Panasonic, and Olympus even have high-FPS cameras now for their various (cropped sensor) systems and ever-improving autofocus speed+precision. Canon and Nikon, of course, have begun putting bigger buffers and higher FPS in virtually all their cameras, too. The latest shocker, which we’ll discuss next, is the Canon EOS R6, a $2,500 camera that has the same sensor (and autofocus system, and framerate) as the Canon 1DX III. Yes, you read that right, the guts of a $6,500 sports flagship camera, for $2,500…
The Canon EOS R6 Could Be A Strong Competitor
Of course, we don’t know for sure yet just how good Canon’s EOS R6 is going to be when it comes to things like autofocus speed and precision, but we do know that it is apparently an improvement upon the AF system from the $6,500 Canon 1DX III, their highest-end flagship camera, which we already know to be an incredible experience in DSLR live view.
Not only is this price tag unprecedented for Canon, it’s also a potential threat to the Sony stronghold in terms of mirrorless action flagship cameras. Indeed, with 12 FPS mechanical and 20 FPS electronic shutter, it actually beats the A9 II’s mechanical shutter speed. (Note: The A9 II’s shutter is rated to 500,000 clicks, though, and the EOS R6 is likely not.)
Also, of course, there’s the possibility/likelihood that Canon also has a “EOS R1X” up its sleeve, with a more flagship-style body (permanent vertical grip?) for a price tag that could be anywhere from $4,500 to 6,500. Who knows, maybe a Nikon “Z1” flagship is just 12-24 months away, too.
Either way, the Canon EOS R6 already achieves the same maximum speed as the A9, and does it for $2,500. If the R6’s autofocus performance is anywhere near the A9 II’s, it should be a good alternative for $2K cheaper. That’s enough for an expensive RF L lens!
Sony A9 II Review | Compared To The Competition
We’ve already talked about the competition quite a bit, so, here in this section we will quickly break down our comparisons to just a few categories: 1.) those who don’t currently own a flagship action camera but are curious, 2.) those who already have an A9 or other Sony body, and, 3.) those who are already long-time veterans, wondering if it’s time to replace their flagship DSLR or not.
Sony A9 II As Your First Action Camera
If you’re just getting into high-speed action photography of any kind, you’ll want to buy into a system that is future-proof. Mirrorless is attractive for many reasons, however, action sports photography is the one area where mirrorless technology is still not fully superior to DSLRs and optical viewfinders. Or, you could say, a lot of sports shooters do find mirrorless to be superior already, but not everybody does, and for good reason.
Also, DSLRs are likely going to continue to make some of the best action sports cameras for the foreseeable future, no matter how good mirrorless technology gets. In other words, the A9 II makes a great camera, but you could also consider the Canon 1DX series or the Nikon D5/D6 series too, because they are not going anywhere, and if you still feel like you prefer optical viewfinders for what you shoot, then that’s a totally reasonable conclusion.
Sony A9 II As An Upgrade To The A9
We’ve already covered this too; if you’re happy with your A9, then continue to enjoy your investment in such a solid workhorse of a camera! Only consider the A9 II to be a wise upgrade if you can specifically pinpoint the exact things you’re unhappy about with your A9, and that the mk2 actually addresses. Otherwise, wait and see what the mk3 version brings, of course!
If you’re currently shooting with a Sony A7 III, though, or a Sony A7R III or any other E-mount camera, which camera should you get if you’re starting to focus on action sports, or wildlife? The A9 II is the top choice for exclusively high-speed action shooting, however, for people who do things like both wildlife and landscape photography, the A7R IV is a more well-suited camera, indeed.
Sony A9 II Versus The Canon 1DX III and Nikon D6
This is the one area where the “mirrorless VS DSLR” debate has plenty of good arguments for both sides. Bottom line: I still love optical viewfinders, and for action sports I think they will have a permanent stronghold in that market. There is just something irreplaceable about the readiness and effortlessness of an optical viewfinder.
Personally, I actually really appreciate both types of cameras, actually. I really appreciate quite a few things about having an electronic viewfinder, namely the ability for AF points to track a subject literally anywhere in the viewfinder, and the effectively zero issues with AF microadjustment. These two things alone make me always happy to pick up an A9 or A9 II, and they continue to frustrate me once every now and then when I’m shooting with a DSLR, even a flagship.
In conclusion, it is both a matter of personal preference and which types of specialized shooting conditions you might find yourself in, but at the end of the day what it comes down to for me is this: Eeven if you have a Canon or Nikon flagship already, I bet some of you can relate to those frustrating drawbacks, and if so then you should at least rent an A9 II and try it out…
Sony A9 II Review | Conclusion
To wrap it all up: the original Sony A9 was already so far ahead of the mirrorless competition that it didn’t have much to improve on after just two years. therefore, the Sony A9 II is an incremental step forward, much of it cosmetic and interface-related. It does have a lot to offer, but so does its predecessor, and the competition is stepping up…sooner or later?
However, under the hood, there are still some significant improvements that could benefit certain types of photographers greatly, which we detailed in our review. If you feel like one of these people, just know that the A9 II is the more future-proof, fine-tuned option. For these reasons, you’re more likely to appreciate it for many more years to come, and it is more likely to keep the pace with any competitor that shows up in the next 2-3 years or more.
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